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249: Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Posted by jeff on Nov 4, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

vee-bobby-51e155b0efd19Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Bobby Vee (1943-2016) died last week at 73 from complications arising from Alzheimer’s. That’s pretty surprising, considering that he’s still an 18-year old pop star and I’m still a pimply 13-year old with my ear glued to a Top 40 transistor radio. They say inside every man there’s a 15-year old screaming “What the fuck happened????”

February 3, 1959, the day the music died. Fifteen year old Robert Velline was prepping to see the first rock-and-roll show to hit Fargo, ND, home of:

  • PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele)
  • Roger* Maris (did you know that Babe Ruth held the record for home runs in a single season for 34 years, and Roger* for 37?)
  • Actress Kristin Rudrüd (who played William H. Macy’s wife in the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo”, which was of course set in…).
Bad news on the doorstep

Bad news on the doorstep

But in February, 1959, rock and roll was just reaching Fargo. Bobby and a couple of friends had formed a band two weeks earlier. Bobby came home from school for lunch, and found bad news on the doorstep. Headliners Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed that night in a plane crash, on their way to Fargo.

A call went out from KFGO, Fargo’s Top 40 station. Was there a local group that could step in and help the show go on? Bobby’s mom ran out to buy the boys matching sweaters and ties, his dad came up with the name The Shadows, and the boys cram-rehearsed all the Buddy Holly songs they could play.

Though the scars of that night haven’t yet healed (see ‘American Pie’), Bobby and the boys were a hit. By June they had recorded a Bobby-penned Buddy Holly-cloned single, ‘Suzie Baby’, virtually indistinguishable from the master himself. The song went world-famous in Minnesota.

Elston Gunnn

Elston Gunn

The boys decided they needed a pianist, and auditioned a kid from Hibbing who introduced himself as Elston Gunnn, but whose real name was Bobby Zimmerman. He played a few gigs with The Shadows, then left for Omaha where he had gotten a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night.

In 2013, Elston (now more widely known as Blind Boy Grunt) was playing a show in St Paul, where he said:

“Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time, I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”

Sounds fabricated? You can see it, right here. Elston also recalled that Vee “had a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell.” Vee for his part remembered Elston Gunn “played pretty good in the key of C.” But we get ahead of ourselves.

Snuff and Bobby

Snuff and Bobby

The Elston-less Bobby Vee and The Shadows were signed by Liberty Records in LA and assigned to the tutelage of a Texan high-school dropout, the 19-year old Snuff Garrett. Snuff went on to work with Sonny Curtis, Johnny Burnette, Brenda Lee, Roy Rogers, Gene McDaniels, Buddy Knox, Walter Brennan, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Del Shannon, Sonny & Cher, Cher and JJ Cale. He gave Leon Russell and one Phil Spector their first jobs in the business. Walter Brennan and Phil Spector—I’m not making it up.

Snuff took Bobby to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, NM, where Buddy had gotten his start. Their version of an old R&B cut by The Clovers (who did the original version of the Leiber-Stoller classic ‘Love Potion #9’), ‘Devil or Angel’, went to #6 nationally, as did their next single, ‘Rubber Ball’ (co-composed by Gene Pitney under his mother’s maiden name).

smthenigthasateSnuff took a shopping trip to New York to shop at the Brill Building, where he was offered a tune by the young husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who had just had their first #1 hit with The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Dion had recorded it, but wasn’t planning on releasing it. Snuff felt that the song lacked a kick, so Carole added the “My tears have fallen” intro. It sounded like this. Bobby’s version went to #1, his only one, Goffin-King’s second of many.

Bobby had 36 songs in the Top 100, mostly in the pre-Beatles early ‘60s. You’ll forgive me for not giving you all 36. Or not. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to have to make due with a few of my favorites:

  • Run to Him‘ – #2, written by Goffin and Jack Keller, another member of the Brill-based Aldon Music stable, which had 54 top ten songs between 1960 and 1963.
  • Sharing You‘ – Goffin-King, #15

lr-nighteyes-2blog

Both of these seem to me clearly influenced by Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’ – conflicted love triangles in which the narrator is wrenched with fear and anxiety, 2’15” melodramas in a minor key, climbing single-mindedly from the tense git-go to an operatic climax without a detour into a chorus. Oh, the drama in those three songs, fantastical passions for a bored and horny 15-year old boy from the suburbs, each one grist for an entire soap.

  • Punish Her‘ – #20; don’t worry all you politico-correctnessers, you’re supposed to “kill her with kindness” and “blind her with kisses”
  • Charms‘ – #13, a charmer of a song, written by brilliant Brillers Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield
  • Be True to Yourself‘ – #34, fine advice for all seasons, Burt Bacharach and Hal David at their Brill best

And last but certainly not least in the list, my personal favorite, the song I choose to remember Bobby by:

It was kept out of the top spot by Paul & Paula’s ‘Hey Paula’ and The Rooftop Singers’ ‘Walk Right In’. Competition was stiff before The Fab Four took over.

Elvis, Weisman

Elvis, Weisman

Bobby’s ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ was written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne, and Marilyn Garrett. I don’t know nothin’ about the two ladies, but this is what Elvis (Presley) had to say about Mr Weisman (at a bacchanalian post-Vegas run party, shortly before The King died): “I want you all to meet Ben Weisman. The man who has written more songs for me than any other writer – 57! I want to hear it for this man”.

What can I say about it? Not too much, really. It’s a pop song. Charming and catchy. The stuff of my innocent youth. I readily admit that when I was listening to it in 1962, I didn’t visualize it like this freakish, bizarre clip. The director is uncredited, but I sure hope he wasn’t allowed out unsupervised.

night1000eyesBobby’s tune shouldn’t be confused with

  • The 1948 film noir in which Edward G. Robinson plays a New Orleans nightclub fortune teller who unwittingly becomes a psychic, bleakly predicting all sorts of mayhem.
  • Or the theme song from the movie, performed here by Harry Belafonte (with the Zoot Sims Quartet), here in a cool live clip by Stan Getz.

Bobby’s song has had numerous covers, including by Jennifer Connelly (from the movie “Dark City”, better on the eyes than on the ears) and American Idol Vegas Week, one of the ugliest, most aesthetically offensive clips I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch 8 seconds of.

So, Bobby, what shall we say in parting? R.I.P. Thanks for the hits, thanks for the mini-dramas, thanks for the memories. We’ll remember you fondly. And who knows, maybe Elston Gunnn will play ‘Suzie Baby’ or ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, or even ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ at the ceremony in Stockholm next month.

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243: Ricky Nelson, “I’m Walkin'”

Posted by jeff on Aug 5, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

hqdefaultRicky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’

Ricky Nelson, ‘I’m Walkin’ (from “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” episode “Ricky The Drummer” at 08:00)

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Ricky Nelson revival. He ain’t Buddy Holly. He certainly ain’t Elvis Presley. Heck, he ain’t even Pat Boone (albeit arguably).

He was a mediocre musician who had 53 Top 100 hits between 1957 and 1973, 20 of them in the Top 20; an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Ricky Nelson is one of the most important singers in the annals of popular culture.

More importantly, he’s a crucial element in understanding post WWII American (i.e. world) popular culture. I’ll take that a step further. You can’t understand popular culture without understanding the Ricky Nelson story.

rockwellRicky was born in 1940, second son of big-band leader Ozzie and singer Harriet Nelson. Ozzie’s orchestra was featured on the hit radio show “The Raleigh Cigarette Hour” from 1941 till host Red Skelton was drafted in 1944. The producers then crafted the sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (we’re still talking radio, folks) in its stead. It was a hit, with head writer Ozzie spinning tales of Rockwellian domestic bliss. In 1949, Rick and brother Dave (two years older) joined the show, replacing the actors who had portrayed them till then.

In 1952, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” debuted, running until 1966, one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history. Many of the series’ story lines were taken from the Nelsons’ real life. When the real David and Rick got married, their partners were written into the series as their girlfriends and then wives.

Ozzie, Harriet, David, Ricky in 1952 Could The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet have really been like that? Could the show have lasted all those years - some 22 seasons from its debut in 1944 on radio to its cancellation - offering nothing more relevant than programs titled "David Has a Date with Miss Universe" and "A Picture in Rick's Notebook"?

As a tween, Rick fiddled around on clarinet, guitar and drums. At 16, he was dating a teenie-bop Elvis fan. On an impulse, he told her that he was going to make a record in order to impress her. He went home and said to Ozzie, “Dad, I want to make a record.” (Unfortunately, that didn’t make it as an episode on the show.)

Already a fan of Carl Perkins and Elvis, Rick went into the studio and covered Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walking’ (it contained the only two chords he knew how to play). He was following the pattern set by the likes of Pat Boone, who carved a great career by bleaching raunchy, authentic Black music for the lily-white audiences of mainstream radio. The original versions were thought to be too sexually suggestive for the impressionable white audiences, and were confined to de facto segregated R&B radio stations and sales charts.

 

Here’s Fats’ original ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, and Pat Boone’s version (both 1955).

Here’s Fats live in 1956.

Here’s Fats’ original ‘I’m Walkin’’ and Ricky Nelson’s very first recording (both 1957).

Just for fun (hey, what’s it been up till now??), here are Fats and Ricky singing it together, years on.

83513-74037Ozzie knew a meal ticket when he saw one. In a 1957 episode titled “Ricky the Drummer”, the lad sits in on drums with a swing band (at around 06:00). He does a creditable job, though he’s no Sammy Davis, Jr. Then at 08:00, he sings ‘I’m Walkin’’ (live). Check out the girl in the audience squealing. It hit #4 on the charts. The flip side, ‘A Teenager’s Romance’, hit #2.

Shortly after, he made an unpaid public appearance (singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) with the Four Preps at a high school lunch hour assembly in Los Angeles. He was greeted by hordes of screaming teens who had seen the television episode.

Thunder on the horizon.

Here you have it folks. The very first bud of spring. The first step of youth culture across network television’s Rubicon. The beginning of the end of the coherent, conservative mom & dad and two kids in the suburbs America. The beginning of the beginning of the cultural revolution we’re still in the throes of.

hqdefault (1)If you’ve ever heard of “The Ozzie and Harriet Show”, it’s probably as the icon of 1950s America—the world of Eisenhower, mortgages and Fords and good clean family living. Then came James Dean and Elvis Presley and Lee Harvey Oswald and the Nixon Doctrine in Vietnam. For baby boomers–Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton–the Nelsons symbolized the Age of Innocence.

When asked to explain ‘The 60s’, I often tell the story of how I (and my entire generation) waited for Ricky in the 1950s (which actually lasted until November 22, 1963). We were kids, and we watched a lot of TV. But none of it was real. It was Republicans in white boxer shorts peddling their idyllic version of suburban bliss which just didn’t convince us. We wanted some grit. If you need a refresher, go rewatch “Rebel Without a Cause.”

najlepszy-westernNetwork TV was the medium for America’s self-portraiture. In 1957, it was as bland as Wonder Bread with Oleo. But every two or three weeks, at the end of an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, they’d let Ricky sing a song. We’d sit and wait, impatiently subjecting ourselves to what even in our tweens we perceived as the inanities of the show.

As soon as his singing career began to take off, he had the good sense to jettison his older jazz and country session musicians (who were openly contemptuous of rock and roll) and sign a band with members closer to his age, including the 18-year-old James Burton. Elvis was in the army, and the market was thirsty for ‘A Teenage Idol’ (his not-so-convincing attempt at poorlittlerichboy angst). Six years later we’d get ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’. Ricky’s song contains the line ‘I guess I’ll always be just a rolling stone.’ Ah, the irony.

Even though it was the only game in town and despite its commercial success, Ricky’s music was nothing to write home about. Here are a few of his hits as performed on his parents’ TV show—arguably the very first musical video clips.

Traveling Man’ — Check out Ozzie’s snazzy editing! This has been called ‘the first video clip’.

ricky-nelson-james-burtonHello Mary Lou’ — Perhaps plagiarized by the fine Gene Pitney (who also wrote Bobby Vee’s ‘Rubber Ball‘ and The Crystals’ ‘He’s a Rebel‘ and was the first American champion of The Rolling Stones). After “Hello Mary Lou” became a hit, legal action was taken by one Cayet Mangiaracina, who was then listed as a co-writer along with Pitney. Mangiaracina became a priest and claimed to give royalties from the song to the Southern Dominican Province near New Orleans, where he served. Pitney never spoke of Mangiaracina or the lawsuit.

Gypsy Woman’, not to be confused with the sublime ‘Gypsy Woman’ by Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions.

Stood Up’ — co-written  by Sharon Sheeley, whose very first song, ‘Poor Little Fool‘, was Ricky’s first #1 hit. She survived the car wreck in which her boyfriend Eddie Cochran was killed.

In 1959 he starred next to John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Dean Martin in Howard Hawkes’ classic “Rio Bravo”.

In 1961, on his 21st birthday, he legally changed his name from ‘Ricky’ to ‘Rick’. Few were convinced.

After a few minor hits, failed marriages, and a very successful run on the oldies circuit, Ricky (sorry, he’ll always be Ricky for me) died when his private plane crashed near De Kalb, Texas, on December 31, 1985.

Some critics have tried to rehabilitate Ricky’s musical reputation in recent years. They’re confusing good will with good music. Give a listen to Buddy Holly, his contemporary and stylistic cousin in those years of 1957-59. The difference is as great as the distance from Hollywood to Mars.

But I remember Ricky fondly. He may not have been the best, but he was the first. He single-handedly opened television to young music. Yes, Elvis had appeared on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows in 1956, but only as a curiosity (some said an aberration, the devil incarnate). Ricky was the first widely acceptable rock and roll singer, the harbinger of the Woodstock generation, the first crack in The Wall, the prototype of the world we still live in today.

Thanks for being understanding parents, Harriet and Ozzie. Thanks for being such a good big brother, Dave. Thanks for doing what you did, Ricky. It was well worth that half-hour wait.

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6

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Posted by jeff on Jun 29, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Last week’s SoTW aroused so many responses from dormant Deadheads out there that we thought we’d continue that string and share with you the story about the night I sang with The Dead. Yes, boys and girls, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh on acoustic guitars and backing vocals behind lead singer Jeff Meshel.

The Infamous Bathtub Brothers: Mitty, Bill, Rod (photo), Mike, Jeff

It was 1969, good old 1969—”There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air,” as Dylan put it in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Bill and Mike and Me (aka The Infamous Bathtub Brothers) were very active in the nascent underground hippie scene in reactionary Cincinnati. Bill had recently moved out, leaving me alone in the MacMillan apartment building with 89-year old Mrs. Alice(“I shore wouldn’t want to be one of them Rolling Stones”) Wilson. Bill moved into a bizarre 3-floor, unnumerably-roomed home. To get to it, you turned into an alleyway, drove through several blocks of hard-core slum, into a forest, and then walked down a hill 50 steps to get to the back door. The front door was accessible by climbing several hundred steps from some other street, but in those years I knew no one who had the energy to try that. Bill was living there with his Great Pyrenees Mitty and a very long string of transient female friends. So when The Dead came to town to play a gig at the university, it was only logical that they stay at his place.

While you’re reading, here’s the great Buddy Holly original hit:

And here’s Buddy’s first, inferior version of the song:

And here he is singing it live.

Understand that ‘The Dead coming to town’ in those days meant the band and their various roadsters and courtiers, as well as a traveling circus of bestowers of good times, the Merry Pranksters. They traveled the land sowing LSD much as Johnny

Not Bill’s House–Too Many Intact Windows

Appleseed had done his apple seeds. I don’t know what kind of music Johnny liked, maybe Stephen Foster, but The Pranksters were the original Deadheads.

Maybelline

So, they all crashed at Bill’s Place, and a weekend-long good time ensued. A long time has passed, so that must be the reason my memories are a bit spotty. I do remember driving Jerry Garcia and the guys downtown to buy guitar strings in Maybelline, my VERY small Triumph Herald. I vaguely remember watching the concert from inside the PA system. Yes, actually sitting inside one of the very loud-speakers. But I very clearly remember one of the jam sessions, when Messrs Garcia, Weir and Lesh were sitting in one of Bill’s many living rooms, playing their acoustic guitars, just having a good time.

At one pause, I guess I felt comfortable enough with them to suggest a song. “How about ‘That’ll Be the Day’?” I asked.

“Oh, cool,” said Jerry.

“Cool,” said Bob.

Jerry Garcia (Photo by Rod Pennington)

“Cool,” said Phil.

“But I don’t know the words,” said Jerry, looking at Bob.

“I don’t know the words,” said Bob. “Do you?” he asked Phil.

“I don’t know the words either,” said Phil.

Gulp.

“I know the words,” said I.

And then ensued the legendary jam session, me singing lead, JerryBobandPhil accompanying me and singing backup. Well, it may be stretching the term ‘legendary’ a bit. I don’t know, can you have your own personal legends?

Yours Truly (Photo: Rod Pennington)

Unfortunately, this was before the day when everything the Dead played was pirated, so there’s no extant recording of this musical landmark. Just in my mind, my memory, and my heart. I’m fortunate enough to have one picture of Cherry Jerry from that weekend, courtesy of Rod Pennington. I can offer you one version of me performing it alone, but I sure would have preferred to have some former Warlocks playing guitar.

What was this song that Les Dead were so happy to play?

In June, 1956, 20-year old country-blues guitarist/singer Buddy Holly and his drummer friend Jerry Allison drove up from their native Lubbock, Texas, to Nashville to make some demo recordings. They recorded 5 tracks, one of which was a song Buddy and Jerry had written, ‘That’ll Be the Day’. The producer and the recording engineer called it ‘the worst song of the bunch, one of the worst they had ever heard.’ In the alley outside the studio, Buddy and Jerry cornered the kid who had been sweeping up the studio and asked him what he thought. He said ‘That’ll Be the Day’ was the best of the lot. But even Buddy realized that the recording session hadn’t gone too well. In June, 1957, they went to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico to give the song another shot. Petty wanted a demo to take to New York, to try to interest The Suits in this new sound, to cash in on the burgeoning hillbilly/rhythm&blues amalgam making waves by such artists as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. It was soon dubbed rock&roll.

Petty did just two takes of the song, and took it to New York. The demo recording caught fire, and in the summer of 1957, ‘That’ll Be the Day’ became Buddy Holly’s first hit, a #1 million-seller.

The song itself is one of the first and one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. The title came from the cynical catch-phrase of John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards in the John Ford epic Western, “The Searchers”. It’s a movie I watch every few years, and it never fails to move me. It’s searing, terrifying, and profound, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s Scorcese and Speilberg talking about what that movie has meant to them. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with the song, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked as #39 on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. According to Jerry Allison, Buddy’s musical conception and playing on this cut was greatly inspired by a song by Lonnie Johnson (b. 1899), a prolific, brilliant, seminal bluesman, ‘Jelly Roll Baker‘. Indeed the impact is audible. While we’re here, here’s another really neat live clip of Mr Johnson.

Over the next year and a half until his death in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 (“the day the music died”), Buddy Holly recorded a string of hits that made him a pop star. They also comprise an oeuvre which over the next half century earned him the reputation as one of the finest artists ever to operate in the popular music idiom.

Buddy Holly’s reputation has never faded. He was a star in his lifetime and widely mourned at his death. In SoTW 002 (‘Learning the Game’, the undubbed acoustic version), I wrote “He’s a musician’s musician. Keith Richards credits him with inspiring the Stones to create original material. Bruce Springsteen said, ‘I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on–it keeps me honest!’ Paul McCartney made an excellent, adulatory documentary movie about him.”

The Quarrymen

The year after Buddy Holly died, two Liverpudlian kids named John Lennon and Paul McCartney took their band, The Quarrymen, into a recording studio to make their very first record. They understood that you learn your craft by copying the masters. Their recording of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ is an attempt at a note-by-note copy of the original. In 1979, Sir Paul bought the publishing rights to the Buddy Holly catalogue from Norman Petty.

Throughout the many 1960s, the Golden Age of rock&roll and rock music, Buddy Holly’s reputation continued to grow, albeit slowly. And it has continued to grow even more since then, exponentially.

But when I met The Dead, even though there were already a number of Holly covers floating around, he had not yet achieved panatheonic status, so I guess my suggestion was pretty cool for its day. The Beatles recorded ‘Words of Love’ in a carbon copy of Buddy’s original. Here’s the 1964-vintage Rolling Stones in an incredibly intense clip of the Holly rocker ‘Not Fade Away’, their first hit. You don’t want to miss this one, I promise you. Oh, and here’s Buddy’s sterling original.

It was only later that The Dead adopted ‘Not Fade Away’ into their permanent repertoire. They performed “Not Fade Away” 530 times over the course of their career, making it their seventh most-performed song. The song also appears on eight of their official live recording releases.

Here’s a recording of The Dead playing ‘Not Fade Away’ in 1973. It’s the earliest version of theirs I could find, and I’m not responsible for the visuals.

Here’s the very lovely Linda Ronstadt singing her hit version of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ live in 1978. I’ll tell you one thing—no matter what you say about her music, she’s a whole lot better looking than Buddy Holly, Mick Jagger and Jerry Garcia put together.

A sour postscript to this story. I once happened upon a discussion on a local radio show of two snotty Ma’arach-voting Dead experts. They had scoured the many data bases on the subject and were discussing how many Buddy Holly songs had been performed by The Dead. I called in and said, “You missed one,” and told them the story with which I began this epistle. Their response was, “Yeah, so?”

I guess maybe one’s private legends should be kept private. Still, maybe someone out there found this story entertaining or at least informative. For me, I’m just tickled to spend my Friday morning writing about Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day,’ paying homage to it, 53 years after it was recorded. And I sure am grateful that 41 years ago I had taken the trouble to learn the words to that song by heart:

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

Well, you gave me all your loving and all your turtledoving,
All your hugs and kisses and your money, too.
You say you love me, baby, and still you tell me maybe
That someday, well I’ll be through.

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

When cupid shot his dart he shot it at your heart,
So if we’ll ever part then I’ll leave you.
You say you’ll hold me, and you tell me boldly
That some day well I’ll be through.

Well, that’ll be the day – when you say goodbye;
Yeah, that’ll be the day – when you make me cry.
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie,
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

046: James Taylor, ‘Never Die Young’

003: Garcia/Grisman, ‘So What’


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6

076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

It’s our distinct pleasure this week to shed a tear, grin a big ‘I told you so’ grin, shiver a shudder, and then tip our pompadour coiffure, for one of the acknowledged greats of the rock and roll idiom, the guru of the Gothic groove, Mr. Roy Orbison (1936-1988).

Roy grew up with the same rockabilly roots as his Sun Records stablemates Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley; but he made his mark with a string of melodramatic, theatrical hits in the early 1960s, the only American to stave off the hegemony of the British Invasion.

Although he was a pleasant young man with a sense of humor, he suffered from acute stage fright, and developed a dark and brooding persona, clothed in black, hidden behind thick, dark glasses.

“I wasn’t trying to be weird, you know? I didn’t have a manager who told me how to dress or how to present myself or anything. But the image developed of a man of mystery and a quiet man in black somewhat of a recluse, although I never was, really.”

But the image was only the wrapping for Orbison’s real talent, his quavering quasi-operatic voice singing melodramatic narratives of unrequited love and yearning. In many of them, the protagonist is a loser, heartbroken, hopeless, who as often as not is rescued by fortune from his fickle fate.

He had his first minor hit in 1956 with ‘Ooby Dooby’ for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, but failed to capitalize on it. In 1958, his song ‘Claudette’ (written for his young wife, about whom we’ll hear a lot more later) was recorded by The Everly Brothers as the B-side of ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’.

He struggled for several years in poverty, writing songs in the car because his wife and infant son filled their small apartment in Hendersonville, Tennessee. In 1960 he was finally signed by Monument Records and had the great fortune to be coupled with a visionary producer, Fred Foster. He offered his song ‘Only the Lonely’ to pals Elvis Presley and the Everlies, but they turned it down. Roy and Foster recorded it, and it hit #2 in the US. When Presley heard ‘Only the Lonely‘ for the first time, he bought a box of copies to hand out to his friends.

Elvis, by the way, called Orbison “the greatest singer in the world”. Here’s a recording of Elvis introducing Roy and then singing ‘Running Scared’, followed by Roy singing ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Hound Dog’.

Orbison moved his family to Nashville, and there began the string of hits which would make his career and reputation. After a few minor hits, they went into the studio with ‘Running Scared,’ based loosely on the rhythm of Ravel’s ‘Boléro’. The session was full of problems. The orchestra was drowning out his soft voice. Foster put Orbison into the corner of the studio and surrounded him with coat racks, forming an improvised isolation booth. Orbison couldn’t hit the song’s highest note without his voice breaking. On the third take, he abandoned the idea of using falsetto and, to the astonishment of everyone present, sang the final high G# in a chest voice. Fred Foster later recalled, “Everybody looked around in amazement. Nobody had heard anything like it before.”

I owned this album

In the years 1960-65, Orbison and Foster had 15 Top 40 hits, including tough, swaggering cuts such as ‘Dream Baby’, my recent favorite ‘Candy Man‘ and the Ray Charles-inspired ‘Mean Woman Blues’, but most memorably by the wrenching operatic dramas of the perfect ‘Crying,’ ‘In Dreams‘ (here from David Lynch’s warped movie “Blue Velvet”), ‘The Crowd’, ‘Falling’, ‘It’s Over,’ ‘Love Hurts‘, ‘Blue Bayou‘, and culminating with our Song of The Week, ‘Pretty Woman’.

In May 1963, Roy accepted an invitation to tour England on a bill with The Beatles, who were unknown in the United States at that time. The tour was sold-out in one afternoon. On the first night, Roy did fourteen encores before The Beatles could get on stage.

(from L) John, Roy, unidentified, Ringo

An eye witness: “I remember the cries for the Beatles as Orbison stepped out on stage. I wondered how he could cope with it, but he simply whispered, “A candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman” and he was away. The audience loved him and forgot the Beatles for thirty minutes.”
Roy Orbison: “I remember Paul and John grabbing me by my arms and not letting me go back to take my curtain call. The audience was yelling, ‘We want Roy, we want Roy,’ and there I was, being held captive by the Beatles who were saying, ‘Yankee, go home.’ We had a great time.”

Roy: “I messed up the first day I got there. I walked out in this little theatre and they had Beatle placards everywhere, life-size ones. And I said, ‘what’s all this? What is a Beatle anyway?’ John Lennon said, ‘I’m one’. He was standing right behind me.” But Lennon and Orbison became quite friendly, although Roy’s relationship with George would prove more enduring.

Claudette and Roy Orbison

Roy and Claudette were building a home back in Hendersonville, but while he was out on the road, she began an affair with their contractor. Their marriage was on the rocks. One morning in 1964, Roy Orbison was sitting in the kitchen working with his songwriting partner Bill Dees when Claudette came in and said she was going to go into town to buy something. Orbison asked if she needed any money, and Dees cracked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Orbison started singing, “Pretty woman walking down the street.” Dees: “He sang it while I was banging my hand down on the table. By the time she got back from shopping, we had the song.”

According to Orbison, it took them half an hour.

Orbison: “I never analyzed the song; it was really just another form of girl-watching – the guy is coming on real macho, trying to pick her up, then he tries toning it down, and then he gets more sensitive, but nothing works, so he gives up. Then she decides to get caught. It’s a sort of mini-epic.”

Dees describes the song thus: “From the moment that the rhythm started, I could hear the heels clicking on the pavement, click, click, the pretty woman walking down the street, in a yellow skirt and red shoes. We wrote ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ on a Friday, the next Friday we recorded it, and the next Friday it was out. It was the fastest thing I ever saw. Actually, the “yeah, yeah, yeah” in ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ probably came from The Beatles.” It was recorded on August 1st, 1964. It was on the charts for 14 weeks, at #1 for three, and sold seven million copies in 1964 alone! Chet Atkins called it “best rock & roll record ever made”.

Fred Foster mentions that a tenor sax and a baritone sax are both ‘buried in the guitar mix’ in an effort to fill out the sound. One critic wrote: “This is one of the very few songs to have all six recognized hooks: great intro, catchy tune, a repeated phrase, interesting story, good rhythm, sound effects. The simple heavy beat here simulates the beat of his and her walk (2 to a bar), because when he stops and she stops, the beat dies away.” Hmm.

Roy and Claudette Orbison

‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ was almost Orbison’s last hit before his personal life became unraveled. In 1965, Claudette discovered he was cheating on her, and they were divorced. In 1966, they remarried. On June 6, Roy and Claudette were riding their motorcyles when a truck pulled out in front of her. She died in his arms an hour later, aged 25.

On September 14, 1968, while Orbison was on tour in England, he received a call that the Orbison family home at Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee had burned to the ground. His two older sons, Roy Jr. (b. 1958) and Anthony (b. 1962) died in the fire. His youngest son, Wesley, aged three, was saved by Orbison’s parents.

Orbison and Cash

Roy’s close friend and neighbor Johnny Cash bought the lot from him. Here’s Johnny Cash talking about Roy Orbison (“He was so meek and so shy, but he could really stand and deliver”), and here they are singing ‘Pretty Woman’ together. It’s a shame they didn’t rehearse it in order to be able to do it in harmony; it could have been stunning. Ten years later, the house that Cash built there burned down as well.

Over the next 20 years, Roy had his ups and downs. He remarried a German teenager he met a couple of days before the fire, and they had two sons together.

Musically, Roy languished in a few mediocre attempts to record. Here’s a clip from those doldrum years of Roy performing on Japanese TV. The scene pales “Lost In Translation” in its bizarre accidental Occidental hero-cultiness: “Radies and gentremen, Loy Olbison!” Truly, a clip that must be seen to be believed. And even then, you may think you’re nightmaring.

Then in 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the initiation speech, Bruce Springsteen said, “I wanted a record with words like Bob Dylan that sounded like Phil Spector ­– but, most of all, I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison. Now everyone knows that no one sings like Roy Orbison.” Orbison said that he felt “validated” by the honor.

Orbison with Springsteen, Waits, Costello

A few months later, a tribute was organized for him in the form of a filmed concert at the Coconut Grove Ballroom in Los Angeles. The DVD, “Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night”, sold 50,000 copies. Orbison is backed by Elvis (Presley’s) band –  Glen Hardin on piano, Ron Tuttle on Drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, and James Burton on lead guitar. Also pitching in were Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, J.D. Souther, T-Bone Burnett, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, and Jennifer Warnes. The performance there of ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ won the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

(from L) Dylan, Petty, Orbison, Harrison, Lynne

Orbison had been collaborating on a new album with Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne, who was producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The three had lunch one day, and Harrison invited Orbison to sing on the album. They contacted Bob Dylan, who allowed them to use a recording studio in his home. Along the way, Harrison had to stop by Tom Petty’s house to pick up his guitar. By that evening, the group had written ‘Handle with Care’, which led to the concept of recording an entire album. They called themselves the Traveling Wilburys, and the resulting album stayed on the US charts for a full year.

Lynne: “Everybody just sat there going, ‘Wow, it’s Roy Orbison!’ Even though he’s become your pal and you’re hanging out and having a laugh and going to dinner, as soon as he gets behind that mike and he’s doing his business, suddenly it’s shudder time.”

In 1988, he recorded the album “Mystery Girl” with Lynne as producer and contributions from Bono, Elvis Costello, Orbison’s son Wesley, Lynne and Petty, and began touring again. During a break between tours, after spending the day flying model airplanes with his sons and having dinner at his mother’s home in Tennessee, he keeled over and died of massive heart failure. He was 52.

The Quintessential Pretty Woman

In 1990, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere starred in the mega-hit romanitic comedy “Pretty Woman”, which took its title and much of its spirit from the theme song. Here’s a clip demonstrating how Julia Roberts became the quintessential Pretty Woman, fulfilling exactly the image Orbison and Dees had when they wrote it 25 years earlier.

Here’s a nice live version from 1964.

Here’s a live version from 1982. He hasn’t aged much over the 20 years, only the growl has gotten longer. Can you imagine being able to walk down any street in the world, from Nashville to New York, from Tokyo to Rome, and you just growl that growl and the most beautiful women in the world will drop at your feet? Move over, Richard Gere.

To say that there were parallels between his musical dramas and his life would be too obvious. Let’s just say that Roy Orbison made some Monumental records, and we’re glad to have the opportunity to give him a bit of the credit due to him.

Pretty woman, walking down the street,
Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet,
Pretty woman
I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth,
No one could look as good as you,
Mercy.

Pretty woman, won’t you pardon me?
Pretty woman, I couldn’t help see,
Pretty woman,
That you look lovely as can be.
Are you lonely just like me?
Wow.

Pretty woman, stop a while.
Pretty woman, talk a while.
Pretty woman, give your smile to me.
Pretty woman, yeah yeah yeah.
Pretty woman, look my way.
Pretty woman, say you’ll stay with me.
‘Cause I need you, I’ll treat you right.
Come with me baby, be mine tonight.

Pretty woman, don’t walk on by,
Pretty woman, don’t make me cry,
Pretty woman, don’t walk away, hey…okay–
If that’s the way it must be, okay.
I guess I’ll go on home, it’s late.
There’ll be tomorrow night, but wait –
What do I see?
Is she walking back to me?
Yeah, she’s walking back to me!
Oh, oh, Pretty woman!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

034: Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’ (Burt Bacharach)

062: Martha and The Vandellas, ‘Heat Wave’

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